Evening Cracker Barrel and the Art of Snacking


In scouting, we have a time-honored tradition of the evening cracker barrel where we gather near the end of the day to review the day’s activities and make our plans for the coming day.

The term has its origins in the country stores of the late 19th century, where the barrels of soda crackers ended up being the site of informal discussions between customers. The philosophizing taking place around these cracker barrels would have been, presumably, of the plain and simple sort. This extended use of the term as a modifier is reminiscent of the way in which “water-cooler” came to be used in the phrase “water-cooler conversation” with reference to the chatting and socializing that occurs between office workers in the communal area around a water cooler.

The first, dare I say, official recording of the term occurred in 1863 when General Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson met on the eve of the Battle of Chancellorsville to plan their strategy. They sat on ration boxes and called that meeting the Cracker-Barrel Conference.

Today, our cracker barrels are informal gatherings that are more social than they are business. And, because we are a food-based culture, we can’t gather without something to snack on. An evening cracker barrel can be as simple as s’mores by the campfire or a spread of meats, cheeses, and crackers, or after dinner Dutch oven desserts. Whatever is served, it is usually simple and unsophisticated. Nothing fancy.

Evening cracker barrels tend to be a mix of savory and sweet. On cold nights, they should include plenty of protein, which helps us to sleep warmer because our bodies have to work a little harder to digest it. They can include items that can be heated over the campfire or pulled straight out of the cooler. The simpler the better because no one wants to do any major cleanup late in the evening. Finger foods are a great way to go because then there are no dishes.

If you make something like a Dutch oven crisp or cobbler, foil line your Dutch oven for easy clean up and go ahead and breakout the disposable paper bowls and plastic silverware (we call that the fine china). Again, no one wants to be doing dishes late at night and you don’t want to leave them for morning because that’s just an open invitation for critters to invade your campsite overnight.

So, what makes good cracker barrel faire? Think appetizers. Little bites with big flavors. All those hors d’oeuvres we nibble on before a meal or at a party are perfect for a cracker barrel. Here are a few ideas:

Deviled Eggs

Meats, Cheese, and Crackers

Chips with Salsa, Guacamole, Bean, and/or Queso Dip

Cheesecake Stuffed Strawberries


Jalepeno Poppers

Egg Rolls


Rice Crispy Treats

Smoked Salmon and Crackers

Hummus and Pita Chips

Shrimp and Cocktail Sauce

When planning your cracker barrel, how many nibbles should you have? If your cracker barrel is shortly after dinner, plan on having 6-8 pieces per person. If your cracker barrel is later in the evening, you may want to plan on 12-15 pieces per person. Sometimes we’ll have an early dinner so we’re not cleaning up after it gets dark and a couple of hours can pass between dinner and cracker barrel. Or, if we’re planning a night hike or a late night of star gazing, games or campfire stories, we’ll have a more robust cracker barrel. If the weather is chilly, you’ll want to plan heartier snacks.

Whatever you choose to nibble on, it’s fun to gather with your fellow campers and talk about the day’s adventures and make your plans for the next day, even if all you’re planning is what time to have breakfast!

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Categories: Cooking Outdoors, History, Snacks | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cast Iron Cooking Colonized and Settled America

cast-iron-kitThat’s a pretty bold statement, I know, but colonizing, exploring, pioneering, and trailblazing is hard work and the brave men and women who led the way needed to be well-fed and cast iron cooking played a huge part in nourishing their bodies and souls.

Cast iron cookware, such as skillets, griddles and Dutch ovens have been used for centuries and to this day are appreciated by cooks for its durability and strength. Cast iron distributes heat evenly and retains heat to keep food warm even out of the oven. Unlike most other cookware, it is versatile, easily moving from stove top to oven to table.

From the colonial hearth fires, to the campfires of Lewis and Clark, to the chuck wagon trails, cast iron Dutch ovens cooked the food that kept America going. They fed the colonists, helped tame the wilderness, and did their share in settling the American West.

Around 513 B.C. in China and A.D. 1100 in England, the first cast iron cookware was created by pouring molten iron into a mold of sand. By 16th century Europe, the art of casting iron was widespread and cast iron cookware had become a valued commodity. Although the colonists brought their cast iron pots with them to the New Word, soon they were casting skillets and Dutch ovens of their own.

In 1704, Abraham Darby traveled to Holland to inspect a Dutch casting process using dry sand molds.  When he returned home, Darby experimented with the same procedure and eventually patented a casting process using a better type of molding sand. He also baked the mold to improve the casting smoothness.

It is believed that the name “Dutch Oven” may have derived from this original Dutch casting process. Others have suggested that early Dutch traders peddling cast iron pots may have given rise to the name “Dutch Oven” while still others believe that the name came from Dutch settlers in the Pennsylvania area who used similar cast iron pots.

Paul Revere, a blacksmith and silversmith by profession, is credited with the flanged lid of the Dutch oven. The flanged lid, which is a lip around the rim, and bottom legs allow for a fire source to be under the pot and on the lid, making it an actual baking oven at the hearth or campfire.

By 1776, Adam Smith, in his book, The Wealth of Nations, could note that the actual wealth of the nation was not its gold but in its manufacture of pots and pans.

Cast iron cookware was treasured so much that George Washington’s mother even specified the recipient of her cast iron cookware in her will.

In the 1800s, cast iron cookware enjoyed tremendous popularity. Manufacturers that arose during that time included Wagner, Lodge, Griswold, and John Wright. Some of these manufacturers still exist today.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson engaged Lewis and Clark to explore America’s new territory acquired with the Louisiana Purchase. During their amazing two-year Corps of Discovery, many things were discarded to lighten the load, but never their cast iron pots. In fact, the only manufactured items returning with them were their guns and their iron pots. Little did they know that this would become the preamble to the settling of the American West.

And settle we did, but never without our cast iron cookware. To make the journey to lay claim to their parcel of Western America, each settling family packed their covered wagon with only their most necessary and cherished possessions. Needless to say, that always included their cast iron pots and skillets.

Dutch Ovens were especially useful as the country expanded westward. Families could not bring their large cook stoves with them so they learned to cook complete meals, ranging from stews and soups to breads and desserts, in their Dutch Ovens over an open fire.

During the Great American Gold Rush, no matter how hurried a fellow left his home to travel to the American West to hunt for gold, he never left without his cast iron cookware.

Every chuck wagon was built with special compartments for the iron Dutch ovens and skillets and “Cookie” was the most important person on every cattle drive.

Cast iron fed the pilgrims and colonists as they settled the American East, and it fed the settlers, hopeful gold miners, and cowboys as they settled the American West.

From the cannons of the Revolutionary War, to the iron-shod horses that carried settlers westward, and the skillets and Dutch ovens that fed the adventurous explorers across the Rocky Mountains, cast iron has been an integral part of the forging of the American experience.

Categories: Cooking Outdoors, Dutch Oven, Fan Favorites, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

History of the Chuck Wagon

chuck_wagon_side_viewIn 1866, when cattleman Charles Goodnight needed a way to keep his drovers fed while trailing cattle from Texas to points north, he took an old Army supply wagon and bolted to its back a wooden box divided into different compartments. He covered the box with a hinged lid that when opened and supported by a single leg could serve as a work table or wide shelf.

The box was a simple contraption, but it revolutionized the cattle industry. Food and cooking utensils were stowed in the pigeonholes of this traveling kitchen cabinet. There were other uses for the wagon as well. Bedrolls, medicine, lariats, branding irons, whiskey and water–they each found a place attached somewhere on the wagon.

It was no difficulty coming up with a name for Goodnight’s invention. Since early 17th Century England, individuals involved in the meat business referred to a lower priced part of the beef carcass as the “chuck.” Although less glamorous than other cuts, the chuck was an important source of nutrition for the working man.

By the next century “chuck” became a catch-all phrase for good, honest, heart-warming food. The term encompassed beef, vegetables, bread, dessert, coffee and anything else that could be eaten. On the ranch, the hands ate “chuck” at the “chuck” house.

Goodnight’s all-purpose compartment on the back of the Army wagon became the “chuck” box. And a wagon with a chuck box became a “chuck” wagon. The chuck wagon quickly gained independent status.

While the wrangler or trail boss set the rules outside the camp, he and all the other hands obeyed the cook within the sphere of the chuck wagon. Cookie, as he was often affectionately called, brooked no interference with his cooking or his utensils, but the cowboys never rebelled against his rule. They paid him tribute each day by roping dead mesquite or oak wood and dragging it into camp for the fire.

The chuck wagon was also the cowboy’s only known address—truly their home on the range. During the long trail drives, the chuck wagon was the headquarters of every cattle outfit on the range. The cowboys didn’t just eat their meals there; it was their social center and recreational spot. It was the natural gathering place for exchanging tall tales, listening to music if there happened to be a musician in the group, or just recounting the experiences of the day.

A good chuck wagon cook was hard to find and harder to keep. Because of this they earned double or more what the cowhands earned. Wagon cooks as a group had the reputation of being ill-tempered, and no wonder. Their working conditions usually left a lot to be desired. The nature of Cookie’s job required that he get up several hours earlier than the cowhands, so he worked longer hours with less sleep. When the outfit was on the move, he had to be at the next appointed camp and have a hot meal ready on time. He was often short on fuel or water. He was constantly called upon to battle the elements—wind, rain, sand, mud, insects, and even rattlesnakes—while preparing his meals. In addition to preparing meals, Cookie also was expected to act as barber, doctor, banker, and sometimes as mediator or referee if a disturbance among the cowboys arose. He was keeper of the home fires, such as they were, out on the range.

For the cowboys, there were definite rules of behavior around the chuck wagon. Most were unwritten laws understood by all but the greenest of cowhands. For example, riders approaching the campsite always stayed downwind from the chuck wagon so that they didn’t cause dust to blow into the food. No horse could be tied to the chuck wagon wheel or hobbled too close to camp. Cowboys looking for warmth never crowded around Cookie’s fire. There was no scuffling about or kicking up billows of dust around the chuck wagon while meals were being prepared.

When it came to eating, no cowboy dared help himself to food or touch a cooking instrument without Cookie’s permission. The cowboys never used Cookie’s worktable as a dining table; they sat on the ground and used their laps instead. When dishing out a helping of food from a pot, they placed the lid where it wouldn’t touch the dirt. It was against the rules for a cowboy to take the last piece of anything unless he was sure the rest of the group was through eating. If a man got up during a meal to refill his cup with coffee and someone yelled, “Man at the pot,” he was supposed to fill all the cups held out to him as well as his own.

After a meal, the cowboys always scraped their plates clean and put them in the wash tub. Like most rules of etiquette, the rules around the chuck wagon were based on concern for others and common sense.

Along with sourdough biscuits and coffee, most chuck wagon meals included beans, or frijoles, as they were often called. Beef was something that was never in short supply, and a good chuck wagon cook knew how to prepare it in many different ways. Fried steak was the most common—the cowboys never seemed to get tired of it—but pot roasts, short ribs, and stew showed up often on the menu.

If Cookie had time, and he was feeling kindly toward “the boys,” as he called the cowhands, he would make a dessert. Usually it was a two-crust pie made with apples or some other dried fruit. To let the steam out, he often cut the outfit’s brand into the top crust of the pie.

Simple food, a seemingly monotonous menu, and less than ideal dining arrangements were standard on the range. Yet many retired cowboys get misty-eyed when they recall their food from their days with the wagon.


Chuck Wagon Etiquette

No one eats until Cookie calls.

When Cookie calls, everyone comes a runnin’.

Cowboys eat first, talk later.

Hungry cowboys wait for no man. They fill their plates, fill their bellies, and then move on so stragglers can fill their plates.

It’s okay to eat with your fingers. The food is clean.

If you’re refilling the coffee cup and someone yells “Man at the pot” you’re obliged to serve refills.

Don’t take the last serving unless you are sure you’re the last man.

Food left on the plate is an insult to the cook.

No running or saddling a horse near the wagon. And when you ride off, always ride downwind from the wagon.

If you come across any decent firewood, bring it back to the wagon.

Strangers are always welcome at the wagon.


Categories: Cooking Outdoors, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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